This discussion of brain retraining is sort of about sailing, and sort of not. It’s also part of the reason why the boat is presently in the driveway, in July, with projects happily going forward but still at home on solid ground.

“Brain retraining” is a technique for healing, based on relatively recent research on the workings of the “limbic system.” This system is mostly in the brain, and has quite a lot to do with humans’ – and other creatures’ – fight/flight/freeze responses. Limbic system processes, and appropriate function, are thoroughly intertwined with immune system activity, muscle tone, joint tension, digestion, and neurological function. Doesn’t that just cover the works!

For very many years, whenever the question of explaining my health situation has come up, I have done my best to delicately sidestep the entire subject. Over the course of decades, I’ve run through a variety of diagnoses, and some of them have been true – Lyme disease, for one. But my gut feeling has been that none of those labels tells the full story, and anyway, talking about it has just made me cringe. If things are going well, talking about it often messes it up, and if things are going in a more difficult way, I’d also just as soon not go into it, other than necessary basics so that people have a context for a request for some kind of help. It’s been hard to explain why I feel this way, but it feels best to honor that sense of things, and so for the most part, including in this blog, I don’t say a whole lot about it. Regardless, here’s this post… The subject of brain retraining feels important, as does a certain amount of context, for understanding why.

Sometime this past spring I heard, somehow in the right way, or at the right time for it to sink in, about brain retraining as it relates to multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. There are strong immune system connections too, which obviously have a bearing on long-term microbial diseases, but the folks who know a lot don’t have much to say about that. They’d probably be sitting ducks for problems with the medical establishment if they did, so the rest of us are left to put it together for ourselves. Fortunately, that’s not hard!

The big news is that two different people have, somewhat independently, created protocols for addressing MCS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and sensitivity to electric/electromagnetic fields, by working with calming what’s explained as a vicious cycle/feedback loop of overactivity in the limbic system. By calming the limbic system, and thereby coming out of a constant state of fight/flight/freeze response, one’s body has a chance to heal. “Healing” is, somewhat ironically, shut down during fight/flight/freeze responses. This is because those responses are designed for things like escape from attacking tigers, based on the evolved wisdom that if you don’t get away from the tiger, diverting all resources to that task, nothing else is going to matter in the least. Healing/cellular repair, digestion, immune system/disease response all go on hold, while muscle tone, tightened joints, wide eyes, and everything else needed for alertness and quick getaways receives all the blood supply and everything else. Designed for a few minutes of use at a time, staying in this limbic system alarm state for the long term doesn’t work out very well. Muscles and joints tire, energy levels become depleted, and effects of ongoing diminished function of neurological, digestive, and immune systems add up more and more.

There’s a whole bunch of material about how one can end up in a chronic state of limbic system alert – childhood trauma can contribute, as can a variety of adult life experiences, including physical and/or psychological injuries, and life stresses. There’s lots to read on the subject, if anybody is interested, and references are listed below. There are also, now, some very good resources available about how to actively develop limbic system calm. Quite a number of people with serious, life altering health issues have been having enormous shifts, working with these practices. It’s dramatic. I personally know some of those people, and it was enough to get my attention when I heard about what they were up to, being seen out and about town, looking quite well.

One of the brain retraining practitioners refers to this constantly triggered limbic system issue as “limbic system impairment.” I have mixed feelings about considering another “impairment” identity, but the overall explanation matches my experience exactly. It even matches when things got better a number of years ago, and I was on my feet for several years – and then when that changed again, to getting around not so much. It’s amazing to see all the pieces drop into place. It even explains my experience of sailing (I really will get back to this).

When I experienced healing, a number of years ago – going from a number of years of full-time electric wheelchair use to walking the woods, folk dancing, and driving across the country – I never could tell anybody why it changed. I could point to this and that, but I had no idea what really did the trick. In retrospect, because of a combination of life circumstances, and people, my limbic system had the opportunity to relax – and then things just got better. Some time after that, my mother died, and then 11 months later, my grandmother. I felt things begin to turn, after my mom died, and by a few months after we all lost my grandmother, things with my health were increasingly complicated. That’s when I quit driving, because of reflex issues mentioned in that post about “sailing as accessible transportation.” I was still having a good time – the Falmouth cutter sailing was in there, after the driving was done – and then the Lyme thing went crazy, knees, etc. etc.

Now, over 10 years after the beginning of the knees thing, the situation has had ups, and it’s had downs, with some kind of pattern that was not readily discernible. Lyme fits in there, and so does working on issues related to surviving, and recovering from, childhood and adult trauma. Health issues typically addressed by the brain retraining folks are all everyday parts of my experience, except for perhaps electromagnetic sensitivity, which I prefer not to think about. Now, with this new information about limbic system function, it’s like lining up a transparent drawing over the jumbled, chaotic picture of my life, and watching all the shapes line up, between the transparency and the hidden lines in the full picture. The transparent drawing is a key, and it actually fits.

As I said earlier, there are a couple of people who have developed protocols for addressing health issues using this new understanding of limbic system feedback loops. There are similarities between the two protocols, and one of those similarities is that they both say “practice this devotedly for six months, and then assess if it’s working.” Some people see dramatic changes a lot faster than that, and for others it takes more time. Surprisingly, about 80% of those who stick with it experience either substantial, or complete, recovery of their health. Of course some people are probably dropping out because they can sense that for them it’s not the right thing, or because they have inadequate support, or for any number of other reasons – those who have dropped out are not counted in the 80%. Still, it’s impressive.

So then there’s that six-month commitment – one of the practitioners says specifically not to undertake this in the middle of some big life change, like moving, or starting a new job. I’ve taken that to mean that it’s unrealistic to try to retrain your limbic system for calm while in the midst of uncertainty and unusual demands. While sailing is fun, and satisfying, it’s also completely filled with uncertainty and unusual demands! There is tension that goes with good seamanship, and successful arrival at the next safe harbor.

On the one hand, one of the techniques of brain retraining is to ask new and different things of your brain – funny exercises that shake brain patterns out of old habits are a part of the work. For example one gets to practice the Stroop test, reading words for colors that are printed in ink colors different from the words that are written, trying to read the words, or trying to say the colors, without reverting to the contradictory input. It’s surprisingly challenging. “Yellow” might be written in blue ink, and darned if you don’t say “blue” when you’re trying to say the written words!

When it comes to sailing, there are a broad variety of considerations; sailing is so multi-faceted. On the one hand, there are many opportunities for high concentration involving new, unexpected input, which is just perfect for brain retraining. Sailing at night, for example, is like this, with the completely different look and feel of both landmarks and waves. And the motion of the boat, day or night, is a constant new experience for body and mind. On the other hand, there are completely stressful events, including things like ships moving unpredictably, weather changes (anticipated or otherwise), anchors that might be set – or maybe not. And there is the rather unrelenting attention required: “situational awareness,” keeping track of traffic, weather, and navigation, and basic but crucial details, like not falling off the boat.

It’s a funny mix, sailing, and I think that at times the balance has come out, for me, on the positive side as far as support for limbic system calm, and resulting health improvements. Other times, it’s gone more the other way. Last year, for example, in 2013, I had a whole bunch of wonderful experiences. At the same time, the stressful side of things was heavily on my mind, and physically the whole undertaking was much more challenging than the previous year. With my current understanding, I can see the snowball effect of my worry about the various stresses. This is the vicious cycle/feedback loop that can happen with limbic system alert messages, which go to the cortex for checking, and come back to the limbic system with the message that yes, there is a problem. Uninterrupted, the limbic system goes further into alert mode, with further checking and intellectual confirmation, and physical difficulties that result from ongoing alert become progressively worse. Prompting more worries, and more alert… On it goes, not particularly comfortably.

Interestingly, “brain fog” is another of the potential outcomes of runaway limbic system feedback loops. Brain fog was another issue with which I struggled while sailing in 2013, and it was the source of the Cog Dys post from January, 2014. While I still think that issues discussed in that post are relevant, I am fascinated by the interconnections between limbic system function, and brain retraining, when it comes to the experience of brain fog.

Learning a new way of thinking, it turns out, actually changes the physical size and distribution of neurons in the brain. Folks working on recovery from strokes, and traumatic brain injuries, have been demonstrating a whole lot about this (see the work of Norman Doidge, referenced below, and Jill Bolte Taylor). It’s pretty amazing – what a person thinks, repeatedly, actually develops the physical size of neurons. When you change your thinking, say from stress about pain, to thoughts of wonderful experiences, even though there happens to also be pain going on, the neurons associated with triggering that pain become physically smaller. Wow.

Busting out sailing, for the first time in years, there is so much delight to be had, along with mental challenges and varied experience; the combination can make for a lot of limbic system calm, and a lot of healing. I came home from seven months of sailing in 2012 in pretty good shape. That next winter, the wheelchair seen in occasional photos became a place to pile things up in the house. I didn’t hike all that far, but inside the house and outside to the yard, with places to lie down, was working out pretty well. When we launched the boat in 2013 I didn’t really want to leave, but felt like it was somehow important. And in fact, it was important: sailing into Gouldsboro, and Belfast; so many wonderful visits, up and down the coast; and all those whales, from Cape Cod to Maine. But I lost a bunch of ground, physically. No more piling stuff up on the wheelchair for months, and back to needing a good bit more help, once I got home.

Presently, about three months into a daily practice of brain retraining, there is positive change. It’s got potential. We do plan to launch the boat – I really want to see how that junk rig works – but I haven’t been in such a hurry. Now that there’s been time to become familiar with this new brain practice, it should be possible to carry it on board. But in the meantime, the mental challenges of a new rig and everything else we’ve been up to, right here at home, have been just perfect.

So we’ll see what happens, on all fronts…


Brain Retraining Resources


Ashok Gupta This one has a really coherent explanation of how limbic system feedback loops work. That explanation is included in the introductory videos that are free on YouTube. The order of the videos is jumbled up – you can go from one to the next, in order, by finding the appropriate title on the page at this link: (The presentation starts with session 1, part one, which is probably all the way down at the bottom of the page.) Or you can sign up for free links through the Gupta Program website. In exchange for receiving some of their e-mails, you get links for the full presentations all in order.

Annie Hopper There are online videos here too, though they are not the actual beginning of her DVD program. This program is not as focused on meditation, and “supportive services” are particularly well developed. She also has quite a full schedule of in person programs available in various parts of North America and now in Europe.

Neither the Gupta nor the Hopper program is “perfect,” to my mind, but each includes an abundance of information, tools, and techniques for developing limbic system calm, and thus overall healing. Both are effective in themselves, and as resources for understanding the considerations and developing one’s own approach.

Neuroplasticity books/websites:

Norman Doidge
book: The Brain That Changes Itself
A YouTube search for Norman Doidge brings up a number of interesting presentations.

Jill Bolte Taylor
book: My Stroke of Insight
TED talk:
This is not strictly about limbic systems and brain retraining – but it’s an impressive and fascinating piece of work about brain process and experience, and healing.

Lissa Rankin This page has four videos – I found the last one particularly helpful on the limbic system subject.

Book list (many authors) from Annie Hopper

There’s a whole lot more out there, available by following the Google trail for related terms, as well as references and introductory videos and text in the Gupta and Hopper website materials…

[A follow-up to this post, “Brain Retraining On Board,” appears in October 2014, and can be found here: ]